–Acts 18:18-19 (ESV)
In the days of the Temple, if a man or woman desired to take a special vow of separation to the LORD, he or she could take a Nazirite vow. The Torah lays out the specifications in Numbers 6. People undertook Nazirite vows for a variety of reasons, including healing, safe return, prayer for another, and simply to observe a time of sanctification. Rabbinic literature attests to the popularity of the vow in the late Second Temple period. The Mishnah dedicates an entire tractate to the subject. Nazirites were not uncommon among the disciples of Yeshua. John the Immerser and James the brother of the Master were lifelong Nazirites. Later in the book of Acts, Paul completes a second Nazirite vow along with four other disciples.
I know that over the years, there have been many commentaries written about the meaning of Paul’s vow and whether or not it was a Nazirite vow. Lancaster seems to think so and he has plenty of company. But why should you care and why am I writing about this now?
A lot of Christians are invested in de-coupling Paul and the early Jewish apostles from Judaism and Jewish practices. I think it’s important to “re-couple” the first century Jews in the Messiah with their Judaism and Jewish practices and then ask ourselves why would the next generation of “Messianic Jews” give up being Jews? The answer is, they wouldn’t. Why should they? Although Paul was accused of preaching against the Torah of Moses (Acts 21:28), it was a total lie. Paul never did such a thing (contrary to some theologies running around out there) and he certainly never admitted to doing so. We also don’t find Paul saying that his Jewish contemporaries were to keep Torah but their children and grandchildren would give it up.
But then again, we have this:
In speaking of a new covenant, he makes the first one obsolete. And what is becoming obsolete and growing old is ready to vanish away.
–Hebrews 8:13 (ESV)
You could certainly spin that into saying the Jews were in the process of giving up their “obsolete” practices and replacing them with ones based on the New Covenant. The problem is, the New Covenant primarily reaffirms and expands upon all of the previous covenants God made with the Jews, including the Sinai covenant. If anything, the New Covenant should have strengthened Torah observance among the Jews, not deleted it.
So why does Christianity fight that interpretation and fight the idea that Paul could have possibly taken a Nazirite vow?
Many writers argue against Paul taking a Nazirite vow on the basis that the vow required the Nazirite to make animal sacrifices. These teachers are reluctant to think about Paul bringing a lamb, a ewe, and a ram as burnt offerings, sin offerings, and peace offerings. Contrary to that objection, James the brother of the Master later encourages Paul to complete his own Nazirite vow and pay the expenses of four other disciples in order to demonstrate that he walked “orderly, keeping the Torah” (Acts 21:24).
-Lancaster, pp 539-40
Sounds pretty Jewish to me.
Of course, post-Temple, there is no way to take a Nazirite vow or to perform the sacrifices, so many of the Torah mitzvot are unable to be observed by Jews today. We know that the Torah was originally given as a sort of “national constitution” of ancient Israel, defining all of the laws, social mores, and traditions of the Israelites in the Land. We know that when Messiah returns and builds the next Temple, that at least some of the Torah commandments related to the Temple sacrifices will be restored.
But what is the purpose of the Torah in Judaism in the meantime?
That’s like asking, what’s the purpose of a marriage license between a couple when the couple have to endure a lengthy physical separation say because of military service. Just because they can’t be together for a period of months or even years doesn’t mean they aren’t still married. It doesn’t mean that their marital obligations are completely done away with, even though some aspects of the relationship cannot be performed while they’re apart. The relationship endures between one period of togetherness and the next. Both husband and wife continue to wear their wedding rings. They both still refer to the other as “husband” and “wife.” They both stay faithful and do not enter into intimate relationships with other people.
Yes, I’m describing a pretty ideal situation relative to a separated married couple, but let’s look at the analogy. If a married couple who are forced to be apart, even for an extended period of time, are expected to remain faithful to one another and to practice specific behaviors based on their marital faithfulness, how much more should the Jewish people continue to remain faithful to God and to practice specific behaviors, the Torah mitzvot that can be performed in this day and age, based on their faithfulness to God?
The surest way to lose a skill or a relationship is to not practice it. The surest way for a Jew to lose faithfulness to God is to not practice the mitzvot, even though they can only practice a limited set of mitzvot due to “temporary separation.”
But the “couple” are getting closer again. Since 1948, there has been a Jewish homeland, Israel, in existence. Jews can make aliyah. They can return home. Yes, the Temple isn’t there yet. The Priesthood isn’t there yet. But then again, the bridegroom hasn’t returned home yet. When he does, he’ll rebuild the house, and the couple will move back in. But under certain provisions of the Abrahamic covenant that have been enhanced by the New Covenant, the “bride” won’t be only the Jewish people.
The analogy gets pretty hard to maintain at this point, but there’s a reason that the body of unified believers is called “the bride of Christ.” There’s a reason why the Gospels are full of “Jesus as bridegroom” imagery. Some of the details are still a little fuzzy, but we know that the bride and groom, who have been apart for so very long, are coming back together again.
The Jewish bride and the Jewish bridegroom will once again take up housekeeping. They have been faithful in their vows and faithful in performing all of the acts related to their marriage that were possible to keep while the house has lain in ruins. When the house is rebuilt, when David’s fallen sukkah, the Temple, is reconstructed by Messiah on the Holy Temple Mount in Jerusalem, the world will see just how vital the Torah of Moses is in the lives of the Jewish people, and the Torah will be perfect as taught and practiced by the perfect Messiah.
But until then, the Jewish bride does what she can to faithfully keep the mitzvot and to show her Jewish husband that she loves him with all her heart.